Review: ‘The Rescue’ (2021), starring Rick Stanton, John Volathen, Ben Svasti, Weerasak Kowsurat, Richard Harris, Vern Unsworth and Anupong Paochinda

July 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rick Stanton and John Volanthen in “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

“The Rescue” (2021)

Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Some language in Thai with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Rescue” features a group of Asian and white people (mostly rescue divers and military/government officials) discussing their involvement in the mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, from June 23 to July 10, 2018.

Culture Clash: The rescuers had to overcome language barriers, cultural differences and conflicts over the best rescue methods in order to complete the mission. 

Culture Audience: “The Rescue” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching true “life or death” stories that are informative and emotionally stirring.

A scene from “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

The documentary “The Rescue” is riveting and inspirational in its retelling of the rescue mission that saved 13 people trapped in a Thailand cave in 2018. Netflix bought the exclusive rights to get the stories of the people who were trapped in the cave and their families. Therefore, “The Rescue” mainly has the perspectives of the rescuers and some of the government officials who made crucial decisions that helped save the lives of all 13 people.

“The Rescue” was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the husband-and-wife duo who won an Oscar for directing the 2018 documentary “Free Solo” about famed rock climber Alex Honnold’s quest to perform a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in June 2017. “The Rescue” isn’t as suspenseful as “Free Solo,” mainly because most people watching “The Rescue” already know the outcome of the rescue mission. “The Rescue” cinematography, although impressive, isn’t as visually stunning as the cinematography in “Free Solo.”

“The Rescue” has a mixture of exclusive interviews, news archival footage and recreations of the rescue mission by some of the people who were there. This recreated footage might not sit too well with documentary purists. However, without some visuals to accompany the stories told in the interviews, “The Rescue” would be a very dry documentary of mostly talking head interviews. It would somehow seem too trite to use animation to recreate the fascinating and monumental stories told in “The Rescue.” If “The Rescue” filmmakers wanted to have recreations in this documentary, live-action footage (rather than animation) was the better and more challenging choice.

The documentary’s quality is compromised, due to the lack of perspectives from the trapped victims and an over-reliance on recreated footage. “The Rescue” triumphs mostly as a fascinating true story of human resilience and compassion. This story is also a great example of people overcoming cultural differences for a shared cause.

The ordeal of the 13 people trapped in the cave began on June 23, 2018, when 12 boys (ranging in ages from 11 to 16) from a junior soccer team, along with the team’s assistant coach, entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. They wanted to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys and spend some time in the cave before expected monsoons started that summer. They didn’t know it at the time, but the monsoon rains would arrive earlier than expected, and the flooding would trap them in the cave, which stretches for 10,000 meters or 6.2 miles.

The 12 boys were Mongkhon “Mark” Bunpiam, Somphong “Pong” Chaiwong, Phonchai “Tee” Khamluang, Duangphet “Dom” Phromthep, Phiphat “Nick” Phothi, Phanumat “Mig” Saengdi, Adun “Dul” Sam-on, Phiraphat “Night” Somphiangchai, Prachak “Note” Sutham, Natthawut “Tern” Thakhamsong, Chanin “Titan” Wibunrungrueang and Ekkarat “Bew” Wongsukchan. The soccer coach was Ekkaphon “Eak” Kanthawong, a former monk. Kanthawong’s skills as a monk would come in handy in teaching the boys to stay calm in this crisis.

Members of the Thai Navy SEALs were among the first government-sanctioned rescuers. Thai Navy captain Anan Surawan comments, “I felt immense pressure. Everybody has high expectations when it comes to the Navy SEALs.” Royal Thai Navy rear admiral Apakorn Youkongkaew, who was the commander of the cave operations, says in the documentary that the first rescue unit had only 17 people.

Unfortunately, nearly all the Thai Navy SEALs were not trained to do the type of cave diving required for this rescue. Once this cave rescue made international headlines and it became obvious that more people were needed for this enormous mission, thousands of people from around the world offered their services. (The documentary mention that about 5,000 people in Thailand were involved in the rescue in some way.) The Thai government ended up getting a list of cave divers who were considered among the best in the world.

Although “The Rescue” certainly gives credit to the Thai officials who ended up making crucial decisions that resulted in all 13 people being saved, the documentary makes the biggest heroes and “experts” of this rescue mission to be the non-Thai civilians who came from other countries—specifically England and Australia—to offer their help. The teamwork between the Thai people and the non-Thai people was crucial to this successful mission, but the movie still has the tone that the non-Thai people deserved most of the praise and the glory. It’s a tone that will be a little off-putting to some viewers.

In “The Rescue,” viewers will get extensive personal histories and backgrounds of three Anglo rescuers in particular, all of whom all did cave diving as hobbies: retired fireman Rick Stanton (from England), information technology consultant John Volanthen (from England) and anesthesiologist Dr. Richard Harris (from Australia). They all describes themselves as daredevil cave divers, who feel like they are in some ways society misfits because most people think their passion for cave diving is obsessive.

“The Rescue” goes so deep into the personal histories of Stanton and Harris, their respective wives (Amp Bangnoen for Stanton, Dr. Fiona Harris for Richard Harris) are interviewed, even though the wives were not directly involved in the rescue mission. “The Rescue” also details Stanton’s and Bangnoen’s courtship, which is extraneous information that veers a little too off-topic. The only other wife interviewed in the documentary is Waleeporn Gunan, the widow of Thai Navy petty officer Saman Gunan, who tragically died in the cave during this rescue mission.

Most of the cave divers interviewed in the documentary talk about the sense of independence, adventure and freedom they have when cave diving. Volanthen comments, “Cave diving, for me, is relaxing. Nobody tells you what to do. Your time is your own. It’s very liberating. Having said that, most of the time it’s jumping into a muddy hole.” Stanto adds, “It’s like being in space. The purest adventure you can have.”

Vern Unsworth, another British cave diver enthusiast who was part of the rescue team, had the advantage of diving in the cave long before the rescue mission took place. Unsworth, who’s a financial consultant by profession, says in the documentary: “I’d been involved heavily with the exploration of the cave. That’s why I became known locally as the crazy foreign caver.” Unsworth adds that with all due respect to the Thai Navy SEALs, “They’re a strong, disciplined outfit, but cave diving needs specific skills and specific types of equipment.”

In “The Rescue,” Unsworth is credited with giving General Anupong Paochinda (Thailand’s minister of the interior) a list of people whom Unsworth considered to be the best cave divers in the world. Stanton and Volanthen were two of the names on the list. At first, these non-Thai outsiders who volunteered their services got resistance from the Thai government, but as the situation got more desperate, the government became more open to listening to the suggestions of the expert cave divers who came from outside of Thailand.

It was soon determined that the rain water would have to be diverted, in order to prevent more flooding. For several days, the boys and their coach could not be found in the cave. And when they were found, the biggest challenge was how to get them out safely, since all of the trapped people were not expert divers. Figuring out the best way to get them out alive took several more days until it actually happened.

A radical and risky idea was to give the rescued survivors a powerful anesthesia so that they would be rendered unconscious and therefore not panic while they were being carried out of the cave. Richard Harris had the enormous responsibility to oversee this anesthesia implementation. He admits in the documentary that he was very skeptical and frightened about this idea because of the high probability that it would result in fatalities.

Richard Harris doesn’t mince words when he remembers what he thought about this high-risk sedation: “It felt like euthanasia to me.” He adds that he struggled with the medical ethics of this dilemma until he was convinced that it was better to try this method than to do nothing. Doing nothing would mean certain death for the people trapped in the cave. Sadly, on the last day of the rescue, Richard Harris got the devastating news that his father had died.

Other rescue cave divers interviewed in the documentary include Chris Jewell, an information technology consultant from England; Jason Mallinson, a contractor from England; Ruengrit Changkwanyuen, a General Motors employee from Thailand; Thanet Natisri, a Thailand expatriate living in the United States; Josh Morris, a consultant from the United States; Ben Reymenants from Belgium; Jim Warny, an electrician from Belgium; Connor Roe from England; Josh Bratchley from England; and Mikko Paasi from Norway.

Thai officials interviewed include Thailand minister of the interior Paochinda; Royal Thai Army lieutenant general Bancha Duriyapunt; Weerasak Kowsurat (who was Thailand’s minister of tourism and sports in 2018); Suratin Chaichoomphu of the Thai Groundwater Association; Suratin honorary British consul Ben Svatsi; Mae Sai district mayor Somsak Kanakam; Royal Thai army colonel/chief of staff Singhanat Losuya; and Colonel Bhak Loharjun, the Royal Thai Army’s chief medical officer. Other documentary interviewees who were part of the rescue include Unsworth’s live-in girlfriend Tik Woranan; U.S. Air Force pararescuer sergeant Derek Anderson; and U.S. Air Force captain Mitch Torrel, a special tactics officer.

“The Rescue” (which has effective editing and a stirring musical score) tells this story in such vivid details, it’s almost as if viewers are watching it unfold all over again, from the perspectives of the people who were involved in the rescue mission. Still, these rescuers had the luxury of being able to leave the cave and get food, fresh water and proper shelter when they needed it. The people who were trapped in the cave did not have those privileges during their ordeal. And what it felt like for the survivors who were trapped in the cave is a story that will have to be told in another documentary that is not “The Rescue.”

National Geographic Documentary Films and Greenwich Entertainment released “The Rescue” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021. Disney+ premiered the movie on December 3, 2021.

2021 Critics Choice Documentary Awards: ‘Summer of Soul’ is the top winner

November 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sly Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, The Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

With six awards, including Best Documentary Feature, Searchlight Pictures’ “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” was the top winner for the sixth annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards. The winners were announced during a ceremony hosted by comedian Roy Wood Jr. at BRIC in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 2021. The Critics Choice Association, a group of more than 500 movie and TV critics, presents and votes for the awards. Eligible documentaries for the 2021 Critics Choice Awards were documentaries with U.S. release dates in 2021.

“Summer of Soul,” which includes long-lost footage of the 1969 all-star Harlem Cultural Festival, is the feature-film directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who also won the prizes for Best Director and Best First Documentary Feature. “Summer of Soul” also took the prizes for Best Music Documentary, Best Archival Documentary and Best Editing, thereby winning awards in all of the categories for which it was nominated.

National Geographic Documentary Films’ “The Rescue,” about the 2018 rescue of a group of young soccer players and their coach who were trapped in a Thailand cave, won three Critics Choice Documentary Awards: Best Director for Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (who won the prize in a tie with “Summer of Soul” director Thompson); Best Cinematography; and Best Score. “The Rescue” has also been an award winner at a major film festival, having received the Best Documentary Feature prize at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Val Kilmer’s autobiographical documentary “Val” (from Amazon Studios) took the prizes for Best Historical or Biographical Documentary. Other winning documentaries were Roadside Attractions’ “The Alpinist” (Best Sports Documentary); HBO’s “The Crime of the Century” (Best Political Documentary); National Geographic Documentary Films’ “Becoming Cousteau” (Best Science/Nature Documentary) and The New York Times’ “The Queen of Basketball” (Best Short Documentary).

“Ascension,” director Jessica Kingdon’s documentary about consumerism in China, was tied with “Summer of Soul” with the most nominations (six each) for the 2021 Critics Choice Documentary Awards. However, “Ascension” (distributed by MTV Documentary Films) did not win any of the Critics Choice Documentary Awards for which the documentary was nominated. Also missing out on winning prizes, after getting several nominations, were Amazon Studios’ “I Am Pauli Murray” (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West); Showtime’s “Attica” (directed by Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry); and Apple TV+’s “The Velvet Underground” (directed by Todd Haynes).

“Summer of Soul” has been on a hot streak, ever since it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere. “Summer of Soul” has the added benefit of being a triumphant story about a documentary that took 52 years to finally be released to the public. A documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival (which featured major stars such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King and Gladys Knight and the Pips) had been pitched to movie studios and TV networks, ever since the festival took place in 1969, but it was rejected for decades.

The unedited footage stayed in the possession of director/producer Hal Tulcin, who directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein, who then hired Thompson to direct an edited film. Thompson is also known as a DJ, as the drummer for The Roots and as the band leader for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” “Summer of Soul” was released in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021, and expanded to more theaters and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021. In addition to the archival footage, “Summer of Soul” has new and exclusive interviews with some of the festival’s artists and audience members, as well as cultural commentators.

During his multiple trips to the podium to accept awards for “Summer of Soul,” Thompson said he felt overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude. “This is the best night of my life!” he declared at one point. He thanked his entire filmmaking team, as well as Searchlight Pictures, Hulu, Tulchin and the festival artists for making the documentary happen.

Pennebaker Award recipient R.J. Cutler at the 2021 Critics Choice Documentary Awards at BRIC in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 2021. (Photo by Carla Hay)

Longtime documentarian R.J. Cutler received the Pennebaker Award (formerly known as the Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award). This award is named for Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award winner D.A. Pennebaker, who died in 2019. The award was presented to Cutler by Chris Hegedus, who is Pennebaker’s producing partner and wife. Cutler thanked many of his colleagues and loved ones, including his daughter Penny, who he said was born six months ago and was named after Pennebaker.

The evening had some moments of levity, particularly from ceremony host Wood. When he kept commenting on Thompson’s unique fashion sense, Thompson took off his jacket and put it on Wood. (It was an unscripted moment.) Many of the presenters (which included documentarian Barbara Kopple, “Summer of Soul” director Thompson and actress Piper Perabo) commented on the high quality of documentaries that were released this year. Dana Delany said that she can’t stop talking about the Showtime documentary “Attica,” which is a chronicle of the 1971 uprising at Attica Prison in New York state.

This year, the Critics Choice Documentary Awards had its first presenting sponsor: National Geographic Documentary Films. 

Here is the complete list of nominees and winners for the 2021 Critics Choice Documentary Awards:



  • Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Attica (Showtime)
  • Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • The Crime of the Century (HBO Documentary Films)
  • A Crime on the Bayou (Augusta Films/Shout! Studios)
  • Flee (Neon)
  • Introducing, Selma Blair (Discovery+)
  • The Lost Leonardo (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Studios)
  • Procession (Netflix)
  • The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*


  • Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin – The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)* (tie)
  • Liz Garbus – Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Jessica Kingdon – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry – Attica (Showtime)
  • Jonas Poher Rasmussen – Flee (Neon)
  • Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)* (tie)
  • Edgar Wright – The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)


  • Jessica Beshir – Faya Dayi (Janus Films)
  • Rachel Fleit – Introducing, Selma Blair (Discovery+)
  • Todd Haynes – The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)
  • Jessica Kingdon – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Kristine Stolakis – Pray Away (Netflix)
  • Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*
  • Edgar Wright – The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)


  • Jessica Beshir – Faya Dayi (Janus Films)
  • Jonathan Griffith, Brett Lowell and Austin Siadak – The Alpinist (Roadside Attractions)
  • David Katznelson, Ian Seabrook and Picha Srisansanee – The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)*
  • Jessica Kingdon and Nathan Truesdell – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Nelson Hume and Alan Jacobsen – The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (Bleecker Street Media)
  • Emiliano Villanueva – A Cop Movie (Netflix)
  • Pete West – Puff: Wonders of the Reef (Netflix)


  • Francisco Bello, Matthew Heineman, Gabriel Rhodes and David Zieff – The First Wave  (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Jeff Consiglio – LFG (HBO Max and CNN Films)
  • Bob Eisenhardt – The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz – The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)
  • Jessica Kingdon – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Joshua L. Pearson – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*
  • Julian Quantrill – The Real Charlie Chaplin (Showtime)


  • 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room (Apple TV+)/Jeff Daniels, Narrator
  • Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)/Vincent Cassel, Narrator; Mark Monroe and Pax Wassermann, Writers
  • The Crime of the Century (HBO Documentary Films)/ Alex Gibney, Narrator; Alex Gibney, Writer
  • The Neutral Ground (PBS)/CJ Hunt, Narrator; CJ Hunt, Writer
  • The Real Charlie Chaplin (Showtime); Pearl Mackie, Narrator; Oliver Kindeberg, Peter Middleton and James Spinney, Writers
  • Val (Amazon Studios); Jack Kilmer, Narrator; Val Kilmer, Writer*
  • The Year Earth Changed (Apple TV+)/David Attenborough, Narrator


  • Jongnic Bontemps – My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Studios)
  • Dan Deacon – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Alex Lasarenko and David Little – The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (Bleecker Street Media)
  • Cyrus Melchor – LFG (HBO/CNN)
  • Daniel Pemberton – The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)*
  • Rachel Portman – Julia (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Dirac Sea – Final Account (Focus Features)


  • Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • The Real Charlie Chaplin (Showtime)
  • The Real Right Stuff (Disney+)
  • Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (HBO Documentary Films)
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*
  • Val (Amazon Studios)
  • The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)


  • Attica (Showtime)
  • A Crime on the Bayou (Augusta Films/Shout! Studios)
  • Fauci (Magnolia Pictures/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Final Account (Focus Features)
  • Julia (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Studios)
  • No Ordinary Man (Oscilloscope)
  • Val (Amazon Studios)*


  • Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (Apple TV+)
  • Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James (Showtime)
  • Listening to Kenny G (HBO Documentary Films)
  • The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*
  • Tina (HBO Documentary Films)
  • The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)


  • The Crime of the Century (HBO Documentary Films)*
  • Enemies of the State (IFC Films)
  • Four Hours at the Capitol (HBO Documentary Films)
  • Influence (StoryScope, EyeSteelFilm)
  • Mayor Pete (Amazon Studios)
  • Missing in Brooks County (Giant Pictures)
  • Nasrin (Hulu)
  • Not Going Quietly (Greenwich Entertainment)


  • Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)*
  • Fauci (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • The First Wave (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (Bleecker Street Media)
  • Playing with Sharks (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Puff: Wonders of the Reef (Netflix)
  • The Year Earth Changed (Apple TV+)


  • The Alpinist (Roadside Attractions)*
  • Changing the Game (Hulu)
  • The Day Sports Stood Still (HBO)
  • Kevin Garnett: Anything is Possible (Showtime)
  • LFG (HBO Max/CNN Films)
  • Tiger (HBO)


  • Audible (Netflix)
  • Borat’s American Lockdown (Amazon Studios)
  • Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis (Netflix)
  • Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol (The New York Times)
  • The Doll (Jumping Ibex)
  • The Last Cruise (HBO Documentary Films)
  • The Queen of Basketball (The New York Times)*
  • Snowy (TIME Studios)

Non-Competitive Categories


  • Ady Barkan – Not Going Quietly (Greenwich Entertainment)
  • Selma Blair – Introducing, Selma Blair (Discovery+)
  • Pete Buttigieg – Mayor Pete (Amazon Studios)
  • Anthony Fauci – Fauci (Magnolia Pictures/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Ben Fong-Torres – Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres (StudioLA.TV)
  • Val Kilmer – Val (Amazon Studios)
  • Ron and Russell Mael – The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)
  • Rita Moreno – Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It (Roadside Attractions)
  • Valerie Taylor – Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story (Disney+)


  • R.J. Cutler
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